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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Wild Turkeys



The family was seated and enjoying a turkey dinner. Extended family brought additional side dishes and desserts. Traditional family gatherings are special events. My Cub Scout leader cut turkey shaped pieces of flat wood for our pack to paint and decorate for our mothers. That flat wood turkey given to my mother still survives even though she does not. The turkey decoration is now in my possession along with a coloring of a turkey with fantail made from the outline of my 3rd grade hand.

The holiday season annually began at Thanksgiving by going to my cousin’s for dinner and watching The Wizard of Oz on a TV that got a full three channels. We gave thanks for family members no longer with us that lived happy, sad, joyous, and humorous lives. Those lives continue in our memories. I hope the tradition continues in my absence. Maybe someone will tell the story of a 21-turkey parade at Ody Brook.

It was Thanksgiving Day two years ago. We were eating when a turkey walked through the yard. My brother said it must know it is safe because we already have turkey on the table. Then another appeared followed by more. Like the Count from Sesame Street, we each counted until 18 ventured from the woods, across the drive, behind the landscape mound, reappeared at the other end and disappeared into the tall weeds and shrub thicket. Three more brought up the rear to finish the parade.

Our conversation shifted to wild turkeys. I told of a neighbor farmer that complained turkeys were eating his newly planted crops in the spring. The investigating DNR biologist told him it was not turkeys but deer. The farmer did not believe him because he often saw turkeys in the field feeding. The DNR biologist said deer feed at night and returned to his truck get a rifle. He shot a turkey, cut it open, examined the crop and stomach and showed the farmer it was insects and not young crop plants.

We all make assumptions that are logical and rational but are not supported by scientific evidence. We tend to believe what parents, grandparents, great grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends tell us. I was trained as a scientist to require supporting evidence before making a conclusion. Like all, I make assumptions that scientists call hypotheses. These are just a first step in science reasoning and we need to study nature niches to gather evidence to learn if our assumptions (hypotheses) are correct.

How much turkey information is myth, fairytale, fact, or correct? Facts as we know them are often incorrect and get corrected was we gather more evidence. Wild turkeys were a staple food of Native Americans and numbers were not excessive due to harvest. Native American populations plummeted with the advent of small pox and other diseases introduced by European settlers. Turkey populations exploded with fewer Indians and collapsed again when market hunting eliminated them from most nature niches.

None survived in Michigan but fortunately some survived in the deep swamps of the southeast US. Environmental conservationists introduced laws to manage hunting practices. Turkeys were reintroduced to Michigan and today a healthy turkey population fluctuates between 100,000 and 200,000. Enjoy watching or hunting turkeys that filled the void vacated when turkeys were extirpated without thought for our children’s generations.

With younger generations that are following mine, we ate Thanksgiving dinner watching wild turkeys. I have satisfaction having been a part of the DNR release of Wild Turkeys back into the Rogue River State Game Area surrounding the Howard Christensen Nature Center about 1988. They thrive in the forest with scattered farm fields. Turkeys feed on grain left after fall harvest, acorns and other forest food. Some natural predators kill adult turkeys but humans remain their primarily predator. Skunks, raccoons, and foxes prey heavily on eggs. The presence of coyotes helps keep these predators in check.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net or Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

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Cracking Ice

By Ranger Steve Mueller


It is the time of year when people are thinking of getting on the ice. Polar bears hunt seals from the ice. We hunt fish or maybe just enjoy a walk on open ice of meandering streams or on lakes.

When I lived along the headwaters of the Mississippi River in the section that is classified as “Wild and Scenic,” the river froze thick in winter. We experienced below zero temperatures from about Christmas to mid February. Day temperatures were up to about zero and night temps were -20 F or -30 F except on cold nights when it dropped to -40 F.

I waited for solid ice before venturing out. Unfortunately, some are too anxious. A young father and vice-president of a local bank traveled by snow machine on a lake and never returned. It amazed me that when I would leave Minnesota for a Michigan Thanksgiving, Lake Bemidji was mostly open water. Four days later when I returned, people were driving pickup trucks on the ice to open water. Brave or foolhardy?

Where I lived, I hiked through knee to thigh deep snow to the wild section of the Mississippi. It was a peaceful joy to reach the river. The ice was bare and windswept. Walking was easy. Where shallow snow was present, I could follow fox tracks. The fox knew the easy travel routes. I lived along the first 35 miles of the river between Lake Itasca (the headwaters) and Bemidji. After Lake Bemidji, the river no longer qualified for the Wild and Scenic status. It does remain scenic and many areas still have wild character.

The woods were quiet in winter but red squirrels sometimes chattered at me, common ravens croaked over the forest. Black-capped chickadee, evening grosbeaks, purple finches, common redpolls among others kept me entertained at home feeders. The river was quieter except for occasional conversations it initiated.

The ice was friendly and talked to me. I wondered if it was sending mixed messages but it was not. I would hear loud cracks and snaps. I could peer down 2 to 3 feet into some cracks. The river said it was safe for walking. For that matter it would be safe driving but that section of the river was not accessible to motor vehicles. Not even snow machines accessed the area. That pleased my senses of sight, hearing, and smell. Wild places are best enjoyed when we allow nature to make the sounds, sights, smells, touch textures, and taste. Wild places for nature niches are wonderful for supporting wildlife and for our visits and experiences.

In the southern Michigan climate, ice is more treacherous than where it got cold. Respect nature’s whims for freezing and thawing. Learn to live with nature. The alternative is to die by natural events. Enjoy the coming long or short winter.

One last story. I wondered if the fox I was following was male or female. She eventually told me. She squatted to urinate between her tracks. A male would have lifted a leg to grasses along the riverbank. Read the landscape like a good book and behave appropriately for your safety and the health of wildlife that make it home.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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Walk with Father Nature

A retired friend used his talents and skills as a teacher to stimulate appreciation and excitement for creation, in which we are part. We can be on-ookers or participants taking joy and responsibility for the Earth that supports us. I have always desired to be more than an onlooker. Personal time outdoors is essential for me. My experiences are enriched by mentors with greater skills and abilities.

Rich Havenga continues to share his talents through photography of nature’s wonders and writing that is inspired by experiences in the outdoors. He states, “I will share what I know and have learned through observation and reading. I will examine ways to look closer and deeper at nature. I hope to encourage my viewers to get outside, and explore with curiosity. To be grateful for these gifts from God.”

Looking deeper into nature is best accomplished by experiencing the natural world through personal immersion. It is a daily part of my life and a daily part of Rich’s life. It stirs our souls, stimulates our brains, strengthens our bodies, and heightens our emotions. Rich has been keeping a journal for 38 years since the birth of his son Aaron. He adds a new page daily.

If you like pictures, poetry, or prose, Rich’s blog has something to enrich your outdoor and internal experiences. http://walkwithfathernature.blogspot.com/

In his blog Rich wrote in a piece called Aaron, “Over the past 18 years, I’ve become very verbal when I see Fathers interacting with their children, in positive, caring, and fun ways. Especially when they are outdoors: in the park, at the playground, messing around in the creek, going fishing, watching insects up close, or spotting planets in the night sky. They may be working in the garden with their kids, raking leaves, building a snowman, taking a hike, exploring the woods, or simply balancing on an elevated log.”

See the entire piece at: http://walkwithfathernature.blogspot.com/search/label/Aaron

By scrolling down the right side of the blog you can select archive entries by month or scroll farther to select by subject under Labels. I am always encouraged and humbled by the work of others. How we experience the world of nature niches can be different for each of us. It helps us appreciate the world around us and stimulates a caring and responsibility for Earth stewardship. Enjoy your journey through the blog: Walk with Father Nature.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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Young Birders Club


The interest of young bird enthusiast Sarah Toner helped initiate the 2013 establishment of the Michigan Young Birders Club. Wendy Tatar, program coordinator with the Michigan Audubon, had been working to bring life to the program in Michigan when Sarah’s interest in the program jelled with Audubon’s.

The program is led by young birders with a focus on inspiring and educating middle and high school ages 12–18 about birds and conservation. Adult sponsors help with program scheduling and division of tasks but youth direct activities toward their interests.

I just presented a lecture at a local university where a young freshman new to college talked with me about birds. He was well aware of e-bird and mich-listers and the ease of tracking bird sightings in real time so people can find unusual birds. Another young man from Sand Lake attended the lecture where he introduced himself and said he lives five miles from the Howard Christensen Nature Center. He explores the natural world there. This past weekend two friends contacted me for the purpose of taking a field trip to see species that are not commonly found in Michigan. We headed out to locate a Little Gull and a Red Phalarope.

We found the Red Phalarope but did not locate the Little Gull. Check your field guides or internet to learn about these two species. Of interest here is a young birder we found searching for the birds. He had seen internet postings and was searching on his own. I introduced myself and immediately he told me about a Sanderling searching for food among the rocks along the shoreline. I let him look through my spotting scope at a Great Black-backed Gull that was nestled among Ring-billed Gulls.

It would be nice to have a Young Birders Club in this area where youth of common interest could get together with peers. I suspect the Grand Rapids Audubon, Muskegon Nature Club, or other area Audubon clubs would be supportive and help youth with club activities. I was in tenth grade when I joined the Saginaw Audubon Club and began a life long journey of bird study for fun and fulfillment. Like the young man at the beach, I had not connected with others my age that shared a common interest.

Today connecting with others through the internet makes it easy to learn about birds and their locations. Adult supervision should assist to offer guidance and safety. Young people might gather with others of common interest as seen with flash mobs but it would be good to have club organization and adults from the community present for support and direction. Bird enthusiasts have their own flash mob gatherings at locations where interesting birds are reported. It is a new age for club gathering opportunities but interaction with knowledgeable mentors for youth is important. My life is better for the guidance offered by adults at youth organizations to support my development. Encourage youth to invest in their lives to make them rich in experience.

The Michigan Young Birders Club will help youth discover bird nature niches. Learn more at www.michiganaudubon.org/about/mybc.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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Leaf Experiences

By Ranger Steve Mueller


The best learning is a family experience with fun. I was raking leaves and thought about my girls helping or thinking they were helping. Then I thought about when I helped my dad rake leaves or thought I was helping. What I remember best from both experiences is that I jumped into the pile of leaves and buried myself and my girls jumped into the leaf pile and buried themselves.

A difference in our experiences was what happened to leaves—Earth Stewardship. In the 1950’s people up and down the block raked leaves into the road and burned them. My girls learned leaves make good compost and should not be burned. As mulch they decay and release nutrients into the soil or garden rather than into the air. We used leaves to spread on trails at Ody Brook to prevent dirt from getting in the soles of shoes.

A great experience helps kids observe the intricate natural world. They see details and gain basic knowledge, comprehend what they experience, apply experiences to life at home and in the community, analyze what is best, synthesize what they experienced to use for new unrelated purposes, and then evaluate the value.

The experience allows discovery. I did a leaf activity with students when I was classroom teacher and at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. In fall we found a sugar maple and each student collected ten leaves and then we found a silver maple and collected ten more leaves.

In the process the students learned to distinguish leaf similarities and differences for the two species. Learning more about adaptations for the species took us deeper into reasoning and mental development. Students compared the amount of substance in the two kinds of leaves to discover that silver maple leaves were lighter with less substance. They curled and shrivel more than the heavier sturdy sugar maple leaves. We weighed the leaves and found sugar maple leaves were heavier.

I shared that sugar maple leaves do not remove most of the nutrients from the leaves but allow nutrients to fall to ground in the leaf, where they rot under the tree to release nutrients for the tree’s use in spring. Silver maples ship a greater proportion of nutrients to the roots with the sap, and store it until spring for new growth. Both species have unique nature niche strategies for recycling nutrients. Silver maples are floodplain trees and their leaves wash away with spring flooding so nutrients would be lost if dropped with leaves. Sugar Maples are upland plants and their leaves stay near the tree and release nutrients to their own roots.

My dad, like most other dads, did not realize that releasing nutrients into the air by burning leaves contributes to air pollution and increased atmospheric carbon. I like fires and “some-mores” so we burn branches cleared during trail maintenance and make our “some-more” treats. We allow many to decay in the woods to replenish soil health. Most nutrients are in the small branches that decay rapidly so we leave those in the woods and burn some larger branches. We use large branches for brush pile construction for bird and mammal shelters.

Create family experiences and build relationships. Our kids are grown but I still desire help with projects at Ody Brook. I can use the help but more importantly I think it continues to build our relationship. Of course, their lives are full and busy but sometimes we still build relationships working together outdoors.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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Rob Vander Zee’s ArtPrize

Rob VanderZee’s entry into ArtPrize.

Rob VanderZee’s entry into ArtPrize.

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Rob Vander Zee, talented young man, was seeking an art project while in high school and has now displayed in Artprize 2013. When I was developing a wetland learning station at the Howard Christensen Nature Center in the 1980’s, it was fortunate that Rob connected with us. I explained a wetlands vision and gave him an image. From there he created the artwork mural that still draws youth and visitors to think about wetlands. Please visit HCNC and become a member.

I gave Rob a picture of a beaver pond and he painted a wonderful realistic rendition. The work entices viewers to think about the world we live in. Rob is at native of Cedar Springs and his work helps people think about the future.

Wetlands are major contributors to Michigan’s recreation economy.  They are economically valuable assets that filter toxics from water, reduce flood damage, are major food producers, and provide desirable sites for human habitation. Wetlands modify weather conditions and determine the depth of ground water tables that recharge city and private wells.  Water moves from wetlands to ground water and vice-versa.  How we handle sewage, fertilizers, pesticides, and toxic substance disposal are important community health issues that are constantly in debate. Safe drinking water is taken for granted and there are those that want to reduce community efforts to protect water quality by reducing government programs protecting our health and the environment.

In the 1970’s we passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species. These programs have helped restore conditions that improve our quality of life. Those protections are being challenged to reduce taxes. People forget the pollution costs were more expensive and damaging to health than the preventive tax programs. Saving tax dollars spurs efforts to reduce government programs but at what cost? They may not be perfect but the programs protect our economy, health and quality of life. Rob’s art work hopes to engage people to think about the future and I hope my articles do the same.

When we bought Ody Brook property in 1979, the home plumbing from the toilet went into a 55-gallon drum that had rusted away and other water was piped directly to the Little Cedar Creek. We installed a proper septic system and drain field. It was not until 1976 that government regulations changed construction codes to meet the Clean Water Act and provide environmental protection. We recently added five acres to Ody Brook that has an existing home. That home’s plumbing ran to the Little Cedar Creek without a septic drain field. The home construction predated the 1970’s Clean Water Act tax legislation. We recently installed a proper septic system to protect the stream, wetlands, and water quality for Cedar Springs human and wildlife neighbors.

How many homes still have systems that pollute water quality, fishing, health, and damage our community’s economy and quality of life? The current budget battle in Washington is wrestling with what is needed to maintain a high quality of life in Cedar Springs. That brings us back to Rob Vander Zee’s art.

Rob painted a mural for ArtPrize called Michigan Forest: The Future of Genetic Manipulation on an Eco System. He comments his artwork is open for interpretation. He wants people to think about society actions. His work displays possibilities for the future. He wants viewers to contemplate nature niches and our role as participants in the ecosystem. I hope many of you viewed his work. If not, view and read his comments about the painting at: www.artprize.org/rob-vander-zee.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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Here I am, where are you?

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo


Here I Am, Where Are You? sings the Red-eyed Vireo all day long through the summer. Now it is silent but I watched one feeding on abundant insects this past week. Some years frost arrives by mid September but this year it is not expected until late October.

The olive back, white breast and belly of this long sleek bird is not often observed but it is one of the most abundant birds in deciduous forest. The bird spends much of it time high in trees or among the thick foliage. This past week one was lower to the ground gleaning food morsels on tree branches. I suspect it may have been a female because they are report to feed lower in trees than males. The two sexes look similar so I cannot distinguish them. I often wonder what food could be found on branches or among the leaves. When I look, I do not find many insects but the bird is looking thoroughly on twigs at very close range. Their eye focuses at one inch from the twig or leaf where it seeks food.

I once observed White-crowned Sparrows actively feeding in the lawn below my window but I could not see insects. I went out and got on my hands and knees. When I looked from only inches away, I could see many tiny insects flying about the grass. The birds were picking these tiny bits and making a collective big meal from them.

Vireos are about as long as sparrows but are slimmer. The vireo stands with an elongated body. When feeding, there is almost a straight line along its back from beak to end of tail. Most warblers hold their head up slightly so it is not in a straight line with back and tail. If one gets a good look, there is a white stripe over the eye with a black line before and behind the eye. If lighting is very good one can see the red eye iris for which the bird is named. The crown is dark above the light stripe over the eye. The stripe helps distinguish this vireo.

Vireos often nest low in trees and shrubs so one may encounter a nest. They suspend the nest in a fork where twigs diverge. The hanging suspended nest is a give away that it belongs to a vireo. I seldom find them during the nesting season but they are more obvious in winter.

Unfortunately nests are not hidden as well from Brown-headed Cowbirds. Cowbirds spend time watching the activities of other birds. When the vireo repeatedly enters a thick, the cowbird checks to see if a nest is present. When a nest is present the cowbird will lay an egg in the nest when the vireo is away feeding. The young cowbird hatches first and often pushes other eggs from the nest. It other young remain they often starve because the larger cowbird gets most of the food.

The bill of all vireos is heavier and longer that of warblers. It’s not thick and stout like the bill of cardinals, goldfinches, or sparrows. Its bill is well designed for capturing insects but the diet changes to include more small fruits in fall. By mid October few will not be found in these northern parts. They head for South America where they will be able to continue feeding on insects suitable for their nature niche.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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Fruit Abundance

By Ranger Steve


Tree branches hang heavy under the weight of fruit. A falling apple hit Isaac Newton. I hit my head on a hanging apple when mowing because I did not duck low enough. My thoughts will not revolutionize science like Newton’s gravitation law, but maybe hitting my head on an apple knocked some good sense into me.

People have commented on the abundance of fruit this year and wonder why it is expensive. A news report stated the cost last year was high because fruit production was low and the market could charge more. This year, it was expected the abundance would bring down the price but it went up instead. I am not an economist and do not understand what drives market prices. Perhaps farmers are recovering last years losses.

One thought is that people want slave labor wages paid to fruit pickers but that means hiring undocumented immigrants. Orchard owners have had difficulty finding American citizens willing to work for the low wages. Even when fruit is abundant, the farmer needs to find a way to get the product to market and hopefully consumers would be willing to support fair wages for workers.

A news report proposed many migrant workers did not come to Michigan this year because they found work in other states last year and returned to those states. Others suspect tighter immigration efforts reduced the number of available cherry and apple pickers. As consumers, we only see the price at the store and do not understand why prices go up for both less and more abundant produce.

As a naturalist, I have a better understanding for why plants may be producing a bumper crop of fruit this year. Growing conditions have been very good. Last year frost killed flowers that resulted in trees storing energy instead of spending it on fruit production. Insects that year did not have flowers for nectar and they suffered from the frost. Pollinating insects found better survival conditions this year so they were able to do their work of helping plants with successful fertilization.

Because flowers were killed last year, the plants were able to store more energy for use this year. Oak trees normally produce a small crop of acorns the year following a large crop because they do not have the stored energy for the task. It serves them better to produce a large crop one year and a smaller crop the next. Wildlife cannot eat the large supply in a good year and surviving seeds produce young trees. A low crop likely means a lower survival rate for animals but that is not trees concern.

Tree reproduction is determined by weather conditions, insect abundance, and the ability to be flexible enough to survive good and bad production years. Each tree only needs to replace itself during its lifetime to maintain a stable tree population.

My thoughts are that trees saved energy and stored it in roots last year. Fortunately, this year they encountered great growing conditions and had stored energy for massive fruit and seed production. Farmers are resilient like trees. They survived tough times last year and this year they are reaping the benefits of a good growing season. Farming horticulture depends on nature’s growing conditions and farmers roll with the punches. Fortunately, an excess of fruit production allows us to enjoy apple pie. Migrating birds get to fill their stomach for their long trip. Squirrels and deer get to enter winter with a good supply of fat.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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Red Flannel Warmth

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Amazing methods for surviving cold weather abound in nature. Cedar Springs became famous by spreading warm red flannels around the world. Humans are not endowed with adaptations for cold climates. Fortunately we have devised many ways to create a tropical climate around our bodies. Homes are heated to tropical temperatures. We clothe to hold heat between clothing and skin so a tropical environment exist in that narrow space even when we venture into freezing outdoor temperatures.

Mammals are changing summer coats to winter coats. Their underfur thickens in fall but it is not waterproof. Outer guard hairs have oils that repel water. The number of hairs in underfur increases producing dead air space to hold warm air near the body. Opossums do not produce a thick under underfur and they become vulnerable to killing cold. There tails are especially are at risk for frostbite.

Birds produce insulating down feathers for winter and those are protected from getting wet by contour feathers that we see covering the body. At the base of the bird’s tail is an uropygial or preening gland that produces an oily substance the bird retrieves with its bill to spread on contour feathers. This water repellant keeps feathers dry in wet weather. Ducks as well as songbirds use the oil to prevent down feathers from becoming waterlogged and losing the ability to provide warm dead air space.

Insects have a variety of adaptations to maintain populations until summer. Most wasps freeze to death after the first few hard frosts but the queen leaves the nest and finds a log to crawl under or some other protected place. There she survives the winter to begin a new colony in the spring.

Viceroy butterflies lay eggs that hatch in late summer and the tiny caterpillars use silk to attach a willow leaf to a branch. The caterpillar hibernates hidden and suspended in the curled leaf until spring. Woolly Bear Caterpillars are seen walking about on warm fall days. They hibernate in secluded locations like leaf litter until spring conditions warm to encourage plant growth. The caterpillar in spring continues feeding and development. A white winged Woolly Bear moth will emerge from the pupa in summer to begin the cycle anew. Many aquatic insects, like dragonflies, winter as larvae in streams with the some adult dragonflies, like darners, migrating south.

June beetle grubs burrow into ground to get below frost line. In 1985 our dog, Ody Brook, died and we buried him in January. Yes, Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary is named after him in 1979. A fire was built with a reflector to direct heat downward to thaw the ground. It was a cold winter and the frost line was deep. We dug the grave and found a large white June beetle grub four feet deep at the bottom of the grave. Had the beetle only dug three feet deep, it would have frozen.

Trees do not maintain heat to survive winter but have special nature niche adaptations. They remove most of the water from cells to prevent cells from bursting when water freezes. If the cells kept water, it would expand and rupture tissues killing them. Trees must maintain their trunks and branches so they move water to roots and that protects from frost damage. The antifreeze nature of rich sugar water prevents freezing. Desiccation in winter can kill tissues. Bud scales help prevent bud tissue drying by covering delicate tissues that wait for spring. The above ground portion of herbaceous perennial plants dies but living tissue survives in the ground. New spring growth arises from underground tissues. Annuals die except for the seed that carries new life to spring. Wear red flannels and survive until spring.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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Pod People

 By Ranger Steve Mueller

Common milkweed gone to seed.

Common milkweed gone to seed.

Many of us remember the movie where giant pods took over human bodies while people slept. Now when I talk about pod people, I refer to people that collect milkweed pods to gather seeds to take over patches of the yard to help monarch butterflies. Suggested methods of collecting and spreading seeds will help milkweed success. Following my recent monarch article, I received questions about when and how to best plant milkweeds. Now is the time to be a pod person and collect pods.

Milkweed seeds need a cold period to improve germination. Keep seeds dry when cold treating during winter to prevent mold or bacteria from causing destruction. Milkweeds are herbaceous perennials that grow from rootstocks in the spring so seeds are not their only way to maintain a population. The seeds have a parachute called a coma for dispersal. The coma or plume spreads seeds when blown by the wind.

To plant seeds it is best to remove the comas so they do not disperse from where you want them. The easiest way to remove them is by collecting mature pods that are ready to open. Squeeze the pod to open. If pods open easily, they are mature and ready for harvest. Seeds will be brown rather than pale or green.

After the pod is opened grab the center support stalk at the pointed end and hold it tightly. Use your thumb to remove seeds from the coma. Store dry seeds where they will receive prolonged cold. In spring it is helpful to further vernalize seeds by placing seeds between damp paper towels for a few cold weeks. They can be kept in plastic bags during this cold treatment. An alternate method is to refrigerate dry seeds and place them in warm water for 24 hours to improve germination rates. Store seeds dry to protect from mold and bacteria and keep them secure from insects and mice.

Milkweeds grow best in sandy (light) soils rather than clay (heavy) soils. Their nature niche is adapted for disturbed soils in full sun where competition from existing plants is few or lacking. Plant the seeds in spring while weather is still cool because high summer temperatures may prevent germination. The plants produce large numbers of seeds because few survive to grow. The method described helps improve seeds germination and plant survival rates as well as providing greater opportunity for monarch survival. Monarch caterpillars feed on the leaves and the adults of many kinds of butterflies find the nectar from milkweed flowers among the best nature has to offer.

Enjoy smelling the rich fragrance when milkweed flowers perfume the yard better than most wildflowers.

The following You Tube video shows the milkweed seed collecting process:


Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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